Preached at St. Aidan’s on December 9, 2018 (Year C, Advent 2) on the following texts:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Today, our Old Testament and Gospel readings speak of a messenger coming to the people, a perfect theme for Advent. It’s perfect because both the texts and the season contain elements of tension and dis/ease.
Advent is a complicated section of the church year. Is it penitential, or joyful? More like Epiphany, or Lent? Is the purple for royalty, or for sorrow? At this time we look toward a coming Light, yet we dwell in Darkness. And what is light for those in the dark—is it welcome, or feared? What might be revealed, what might be set alight, when the season comes to an end? And what is the nature of that light?
“Light” itself is a complicated substance. The ancient Greeks argued about whether vision consisted of rays coming out of or into the eyes, but generally agreed that there must be some “internal fire” that interacted with the “external fire” of visible light. Today scientists describe light as a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic radiation based on wavelength. The length of waves we typically use varies from the 1 pico-meter of gamma rays to 100,000 kilometer long ELF frequencies, but apparently the lower limit of the wave is the size of the entire universe! Yet one thing remains the same in human experience: to obtain light, to see, one needs fire.
In the third chapter of the twelfth and final prophet Malachi comes the promise of a messenger, the namesake of the book. The “day of the Lord,” the anticipated time of justice and renewal of the nation of Israel, has been long expected by the people in this small and oppressed land, yet the prophets from Amos three centuries before to Malachi in the 5th-century BCE kept asking “are you SURE you want this day, do you know what you’re asking for?” Sometimes judgement doesn’t only affect the others, the outsiders, but comes for you and yours.
“See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me” says God in Malachi. Then he asks, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap… he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver.”
Whenever I read these words the beautiful lines of Handel’s Messiah echo through my mind, but they hide the true horror of the text. Do you know what temperature is required to melt silver? 1,764 degrees Fahrenheit. Human skin gets third degree burns after five seconds of contact with just a tenth of that heat. “Fuller’s soap” doesn’t sound so bad, but a more accurate translation describes a lye or alkali used by metal workers: a caustic substance that burns skin as well. These words are echoed in other prophetic texts: Ezekiel compares metal-melting fire to that which burns the disobedient “the fire of my [God’s] wrath” and then says, “As silver is melted in a smelter, so you shall be melted in it; and you shall know that I the LORD have poured out my wrath upon you.” Zephaniah writes, “Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the LORD’s wrath; in the fire of his passion the whole earth shall be consumed; for a full, a terrible end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” One of the commentaries I read says “Even though Mal 3:3 calls the burning process purification for heavenly purposes, the process will hurt like hell.”
I watched some YouTube videos on refining silver at home, and I can tell you I do not want that hobby! Employing flames, poisonous gases, chemicals, and electrodes are not for the faint of heart.
Turning to Luke, we see the arrival of John the Baptist in the mode of this long-promised messenger, as understood by all the gospel-writers. Quoting Isaiah chapter 40, the evangelist describes his coming as flattening hills and filling valleys. I’ve been seeing previews for a film called Mortal Engines about towering machine-cities grinding across the landscape, and this feels just as destructive. John is a disrupting force, not a calming presence. In following verses his message is described as calling for those who do not bear “good fruit” to be cut down by axes and burned, and he predicts the coming of the Christ as one who will throw up chaff from the wheat harvest to be burned with “inextinguishable fire.” Yet, the concluding line of Luke’s description of the Baptizer claims that “Thus, then, with many and various exhortations, he proclaimed the good tidings to the people…”
What? How is the threat of fire good news? What are all these metaphors trying to say?
There’s a story I read this week about the writer Virginia Woolf being asked to give financial support to a woman’s college. She writes back:
Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry: “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this 'education'!”
Woolf, writing just before the second world war, wants nothing to do with the ‘education,’ in quotes, that is offered to genteel young women at this time, which only educates them to submit to men and the militarism of society that is about to consume Europe in flames. Yet she is not advocating destruction for destruction’s sake, but for the sake of a new blazing up of spirit and re-education. Theologian John Caputo offers this story as an example of pyrotheology, the burning down of the old so that the new can emerge. He quotes the philosopher Derrida advocating the praying of “’No, no’, in order to say ‘come, yes, yes, come’.” This is not the gentle light of the philosophers, the beneficent light of knowledge shining outside Plato’s Cave, but a fire “of a righteous anger, her fiery denunciation of patriarchy, the heat of passion, of her burning passion, not the passion of knowledge but the ‘the passion of non-knowledge’… This fire does not illumine the way but burns away the obstacles to the future.” Caputo ends by saying this fire is that of faith, hope, and love, the fire of the event of God which burns away the old so that the future promise might come.
The founding voice in this pyrotheology, the philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins, often quotes a favorite line from a Spanish anarchist, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.” This is perfectly appropriate for today’s texts, as Malachi is outraged against priests and the primary resistance to John and Jesus in the Gospels comes from religious professionals. This is an uncomfortable text for seminarians to reflect on in the middle of a job search! But what an important one too.
It was out of the first burning of Jerusalem, before Malachi’s time, that we received the first five books of the Torah that became the foundation of our sacred scriptures. It was out of an eternally-burning bush that Moses heard the call to lead people to freedom. It was the second and final burning of Jerusalem and the second temple, brought on by insistence on violent rebellion to Roman rule, that birthed Christianity and Judaism as we know them today. Fire destroys, but it also can give birth to something new out of the ashes.
What might need to burn in our lives and society today in order for the new to arrive, just as it did 2,000 years ago in the ancient land of Judah? Are there beliefs which no longer work, that must go through the anxiety and fear of the deconstruction process? Are there systems of religion, or commerce, or healthcare, or diplomacy, or charity, which need to feel the soaking of the gasoline and the heat of the match? What must burn down so that light may come, in this and every Advent season of our life? The light of the world is coming—are you ready for it? Are you sure?
Paraphrasing CS Lewis’s description of the Christ-figure Aslan, it’s not safe—but it’s good.
Malachi commentary: Stacy Davis, Wisdom Commentary: Haggai and Malachi, pp. 75-76.
Virginia Woolf story from John D. Caputo, “Let it Blaze, Let it Blaze: Pyrotheology and the Theology of the Event” in Modern Believing 2016 vol 4, p. 336; cited from Derrida 1991, p. 67.
“No, yes” in Ibid., 338, from Derrida 1993, pp. 21-47.